10 for '10: Storylines for SEC Spring Footbal
The offenses at Florida, Georgia and LSU? The defenses at Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas? These are just some of the question marks that loom as the Southeastern Conference starts spring practices this weekend.
Only about a third of the teams in the SEC return an established starting quarterback in 2010. Seven of the league's top 10 rushers have left for the NFL, ditto for eight of the top-10 tacklers. Transition is going to be the buzzword in the league this spring, as a new group of stars will be developing to replace stalwarts of the last few years like Tim Tebow, Rolando McClain, Brandon LaFell, Dexter McCluster, Eric Norwood and Eric Berry. With LSU opening SEC spring football on Monday, here's a look at 10 storylines to watch in the league over the next two months.
1. Life A.T. (After Tebow)
2010 represents uncertainty for the Florida Gators for the first time in three seasons. The heart and soul of Urban Meyer's program is gone, and if that weren't enough virtually the entire defense left with him. No more Tim Tebow or Brandon Spikes. Or Joe Haden, Carlos Dunlap, Jermaine Cunningham or Major Wright, either. Remember the last time Florida had to replace a Heisman-winning passer? Sure, the Doug Johnson/Jesse Palmer combo wasn't exactly terrible, but the Fun'n'Gun wasn't exactly fun again until Rex Grossman came to town.
If all that weren't enough, there's the little matter of breaking a young defense with a brand new coordinator (two times over actually, since first choice George Edwards balked and returned to the NFL after two weeks) and I thought I heard something about somebody taking a leave of absence? Granted, the Gators have been a machine of a program this decade, so its doubtful doom is in the offering this year. But you have to admit, Gator fans – this is a bit of a foggier path than you've been used to as of late.
Alabama's defense has six starters to replace from last season's linebacker/secondary group, including the all-world McClain – plus the suspension of nickelback Robbie Green. While there's plenty of talent on hand, with highly regarded players like Nico Johnson, Dre Kirkpatrick and Jerrel Harris looking to step in, massive transitions always have their bumps. Dont'a Hightower looked more than capable of filling McClain's shoes, but he's coming off major knee surgery. Nick Saban is one of the best defensive coaches in the world, but in a complicated scheme like his, sometimes a half-step is the difference between a big play for his team and one for the opponent.
Luckily, nine starters return on offense, including the SEC's best backfield with Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. But there can still be improvements in the passing game with Greg McElroy – and that might be the difference in a close game if the Tide have defensive hiccups. It might help if they file a missing persons report for Julio Jones.
3. Getting Back on the Prowl
In 2009, an entirely new defensive staff had to resurrect a unit that had plummeted the previous season. In 2010, LSU is in a similar boat on the other side of the ball. Only this time it's the same coordinator with a handful of new faces to work with underneath him. And the climb's much steeper. LSU was 112th in the entire nation in total offense in '09, due to a combination of an undersized and underwhelming offensive line, inconsistent quarterback play and playcalling that did little to work around either concern. But new offensive assistants Billy Gonzales, Frank Wilson and Steve Ensminger are talking about some new looks to the attack, and Tiger fans are eager to see if that bears out in spring practice.
Les Miles is promising competition at almost every position, and after another below-par season, it's talk that had better start bearing fruit. There are at least two starting spots open on the offensive line and the least-experienced running back and receiving corps of Miles' tenure. This spring is the start of a season that will be a turning point for the embattled coach, one way or the other.
4. Rebuilding Rockytop
Clearly, Tennessee AD Mike Hamilton learned a lesson from his last hire and replaced the young, dynamic son of a famous assistant coach with the young, dynamic son of a famous head coach. All jokes aside, reviews from Derek Dooley's Louisiana Tech tenure are mixed, but at the very least he should keep the Volunteers' headlines centered squarely on the field. Time will tell whether this was another blunder, or getting in on the ground floor of a promising stock.
And the reality is, this would be a rebuilding year even with last year's Boy Wonder. The offensive line loses four starters and will be blocking for a completely inexperienced quarterback and a running back (Bryce Brown) that is talented but has to show he can handle the heavy lifting Montario Hardesty did in '09. Never mind that the defense has to replace a superstar in Eric Berry and veteran stalwarts like Rico McCoy and Dan Williams. However, with that many new faces, Dooley has the luxury of a fresh start. He needs to use this spring to try and establish the tone with which he wants this program to move forward.
5. Second Verse
Gene Chizik had a quietly successful first season, and now faces trying to get better while replacing some of the more consistent parts of that '09 squad. Most importantly, he has to find a new quarterback – enter junior college transfer Cameron Newton. The 6-5 Atlanta native is a definite upgrade in talent, with a big arm and running ability – but will he wind up being Brent Schaeffer Version 2.0? Chris Todd set the bar rather low, but Newton has to prove his decision-making abilities have improved dramatically from his time as a Florida Gator.
More importantly, Chizik needs to continue to build depth on his defense and offensive line. Gus Malzahn's innovative offense helped keep Auburn in a lot of close games last season, but it was clear the Tigers wore out in the fourth quarter at times.
6. Now or never?
Florida is, once again, more or less a prohibitive favorite in the SEC East. That's mostly because, while the Gators are rebuilding, so are the only other teams that have ever won the division, Tennessee and Georgia. But meanwhile, South Carolina very quietly returns 17 starters – including one of the league's best pass-catch combinations in Steven Garcia and Alshon Jeffery. That isn't to say this can finally be the season the Gamecocks book a trip to the Georgia Dome, but if they can't at least break the seven-win ceiling they've been under since Steve Spurrier arrived, you have to wonder if they ever will.
7. New tricks for the Dogs
If there's another coach drawing the stink-eye of his fans right now besides Les Miles, its Mark Richt. Georgia's failed to meet expectations in back-to-back seasons, resulting in a blood-letting on the defensive staff this past offseason – one that most Bulldog fans thought was long overdue.
Now, not only does Richt have to develop a new quarterback from a pool that includes a junior with more career punt returns than completions and two redshirt freshmen, his team is undergoing a major defensive rebuilding. New coordinator Todd Grantham brings a 3-4 alignment from the NFL. On the one hand, players like Justin Houston should handle the shift extremely well. On the other, Grantham will have to find a way to teach the concepts behind the zone-blitzing scheme he had at Dallas to college players. At least on offense, Georgia returns an experienced offensive line and two talented running backs in Washaun Ealey and Caleb King. Plus, whichever quarterback wins the job will have the SEC's top receiver and pass-catching tight end to throw to in A.J. Green and Orson Charles.
8. Step By Step
Arkansas fans are ready to see Bobby Petrino's team take the next step from dangerous offensive threat to division title contender. For that to happen, the Razorbacks need to develop toughness and discipline on defense and special teams – something they've lacked for two seasons now. That'll be a challenge with two of the top three tacklers from last season gone, not to mention defensive linemen Malcolm Sheppard and Adrian Davis. That toughness needs to extend to the offensive line as well, which struggled to make room for some talented running backs.
Don't dismiss Ryan Mallett's injury either. While he's easily the league's best returning quarterback, there's still a lot of room for improvement. He really struggled with accuracy and touch at times, and he really struggled against the better defenses he faced (he completed a combined 39-percent of his passes against Alabama, Ole Miss, Florida and LSU). He can use all the extra reps with his receivers that he can get. Of course, those extra reps for Tyler Wilson may wind up paying off in 2011 and beyond.
9. More of the same?
Everybody got accustomed to Houston Nutt at Arkansas. Sure, the offense was pretty dynamic when he inherited Clint Stoerner, but eventually it shifted into a pattern where, by and large, you could count on the Hogs to have a solid running attack and defense with average or worse quarterback play. That formula hit the mother load when Darren McFadden and Felix Jones were in town, but otherwise it was a recipe for 6-8 wins with a nice upset or two, and nothing more.
When Nutt got to Oxford, he inherited an undeniably talented quarterback in Jevan Snead, along with a handful of NFL talents on the lines and some top-shelf skill players in Dexter McCluster, Mike Wallace and Shay Hodge. But now, all of those players are gone. Are the Rebels headed for the same cycle we saw for 10 years in Fayetteville, or can they rise above? This spring will begin to tell just that tale.
10. New Faces
Rolando McClain, Javier Arenas, Antonio Coleman, Malcolm Sheppard, Greg Hardy, Marcus Tillman, Rahim Alem, Chad Jones, Micah Johnson, Patrick Benoist, Eric Norwood, Carlos Dunlap, Brandon Spikes, Joe Haden, Jermaine Cunningham, Eric Berry, Rennie Curran, Rico McCoy, Terrence Cody, Trevard Lindley and Jamar Chaney. The SEC has lost a ton of high-quality defensive talent. Who will be the new names to watch in 2010? Remember names like Steffoin Francois, Morris Claiborne, Lavar Edwards, Pernell McPhee, Kentrell Lockett, Justin Houston, Jon Bostic, Marcel Dareus, Courtney Upshaw, Chris Walker, Jerry Franklin, Branden Smith, Marcus Dowtin and Josh Bynes.
Reach me by email: